One of my favourite ways of cooking involves improvising in my trusty cast iron pan. I was thinking about that today when I stopped in at Starsky’s for some groceries. I bought some beautiful spicy Slovak sausage and some fresh veggies to go along with whatever I might be able to find in the pantry.
Cast iron pans are great for one pot cooking. Today I used onions, garlic, wax beans, a small zucchini, mushrooms, a small red pepper – and in the pantry I found a can of diced tomatoes and a can of chick peas. There was fresh thyme in the fridge and I have some great smoked paprika, perfect for the sausage/chick pea combination. I finished it with a squeeze of lime juice.
Perfect with crusty bread.
It wasn’t until after I realized that the cabbages I bought for cabbage rolls were not the most well-suited for the job that I remembered how fussy my mom was about her cabbages. You see, I only make cabbage rolls on the occasional Christmas. Now that I think about it, my mom would make my dad go to two or three stores if necessary to get the right ones. The perfect cabbage is on the small side, so each leave makes a modest-sized cabbage roll. As well, each cabbage has many usable leaves. She could tell the perfect cabbage at a glance.
The ones I bought were really too big, and the leaves thickened quickly as I worked through them. This isn’t to say my cabbage rolls are not going to be good. They will be super-delicious. I do after all know THE SECRET. However, they will not be the uniform perfectly-sized cabbage rolls my mom used to produce every time.
They’re in the oven now, and there they’ll stay for at least 3 hours. The house smells amazing right now. I put a strip of back ribs on top of the cabbage rolls the way mom used to do, and I nested them in a roaster lined with cabbage. That cabbage in contact with the roaster will darken and caramelize and become cabbage candy.
For today my work is done. Time to sit back and play the banjo for a while.
Vegetarian friends it’s time for you to surf another part of the web for a few moments because this post is all about meat. Not just meat – it’s about a Polish skewered meat dish called patychky which we grew up calling simply “meat sticks”.
My mom would use a combination of pork, beef and veal for hers, and I started out doing it the same way. One year though, I just used pork and they were so good I never looked back. My marinade is considerably different than my mom’s preparation as well, but the results are very similar. There is a lot of leeway in preparing this dish, but if you follow the basic idea – marinate, skewer, dip in egg, roll in spiced breadcrumbs, fry then bake – it’s hard to go wrong. You need a sturdy skewer for meat sticks. Not to worry. You can get them at Starsky’s. They have them in two lengths – in baskets at the meat counter at the back. Just remember the golden rule for shopping at Starsky’s – go directly to the deli counter and get your number (that’s where you stock up on kielbasa), then continue shopping, returning to the deli just before your number comes up.
This year we’re having a family dinner Christmas Day at our place, and family from both sides are going to break bread with us. Since I’m off work this week and have a little time, I’m going to make some of the foods my mom used to make when I was growing up. While I’m sure family would be happy with a turkey dinner (a much simpler approach), I like to cook from time to time, and I think it will be fun to make some of the traditional foods.
I’m going to start today by making pierogi. One of the good things about pierogi is that you can make them and freeze them (usually in bags of a dozen or so), and then cook them up whenever you want some.
We make potato and cheese pierogi – there are all kinds of other possibilities with
filling from mushrooms to braised cabbage or sourkraut to fruit fillings. We always do it with potato and cheese. I use a mix of pressed Polish cottage cheese and white cheddar.
Once the pierogi are made, there are a couple different ways to prepare them. One is boiled with “burnt” butter. While the pierogi are boiling, we cook a little butter until there are many brown spots in the butter. We call that burnt. When the boiling pierogi float in the water, we strain them, put them on a plate, and drip the burnt butter over them. Add a generous dollop of sour cream and you’re good to go. This is the way my mom and all our family made them.
Perhaps more common today is to boil the pierogi, then fry them up with bacon and onions or mushrooms. Also delicious.
I remember when I was a kid, my mom would get together with my Auntie Stella and the two of them would go into pierogi production. I remember that Stella was the fastest pierogi assembler I had ever seen. Maybe my memory is playing tricks on me, but it seems to me she could do two at a time, one with each hand.
My plan is to make pierogi today – an old friend is coming by to help me – we plan to make a lot. Tomorrow, I’m going to make patychky – we called them meat sticks when I was a kid. This is basically pork on a stick. It’s marinated, skewered, dipped in egg, rolled in spiced breadcrumbs, fried and baked. I only make these
at Christmas time, and I like to think mine are very very good. I taught my sister-in-law Viv how to make them several years ago and hers are also excellent. Finally, Wednesday I’m going to make a roaster of cabbage rolls.
Cabbage rolls made the way mom used to make them had a very distinctive and intoxicating smell. This is because the meat is browned using salt pork. This may not be the healthiest food choice, but it is rare I make them and while you can use a healthier substitute, they just are not the same. I’m sure my brother and my sister will set me straight if I don’t get it just right.
This morning I headed out to Starsky’s to get what I need for this cooking extravaganza. Having had experience at Starsky’s at Christmastime, I left the house early to arrive there just after they opened at 8:00 AM. Good thing I did. By the time I left the store at 8:40, it was already getting busy. By this afternoon it will be silly-busy. The crowds around the sausage counter alone will be over the top.
Over the years we’ve developed a taste for spicy foods, and at a certain point we found those dried red chiles to be way too bland. It happens I have a dehydrator I use for drying wild mushrooms, and it turns out it’s great for chiles as well.
I put on a pair of latex gloves and slice up a batch of good hot chiles. Currently I’m using a mix of mostly scotch bonnets with a few cayennes thrown in to give the mix a redder colour. They dry in the dehydrator in 24-30 hours.
I grind up the dried chile mix in a coffee grinder. We keep a batch in a little clay pot in a cupboard by the stove (with a back-up batch stored in a plastic container), and we sprinkle it on all kinds of foods.
If you try something like this at home, be sure you don’t touch the chiles then touch your eyes because it will burn. Also, be sure you grind the chiles in something that doesn’t let much fine power out as you grind or you will find yourself coughing from the strength of the chiles in the air.
Clean your mushrooms then saute them in a little vegetable oil. The mushrooms will release fluid and then take it up again. At that point they’ll start to colour up nicely.
Crack 3 eggs, add a splash of milk, and beat them for a minute with a fork. Add the eggs to the mushrooms. While the omelet cooks, grate a little hard cheese. I carefully chose the only hard cheese in the fridge. Use what you like. Sprinkle on a few hot chiles and grind some fresh pepper and add a pinch of salt.
Meanwhile, put some bread in the toaster. You’ll want some toast. Open a cool beer. Fold the omelet and slide it onto a plate. Serve with toast. You could chop up some chives or a little parsley and sprinkle it on top. If you squeeze a little ketchup on top, I won’t tell anyone.
While the pasta is cooking….
…..heat up a big cast iron pan, add a little oil and the garlic and the sage and the morels and let them cook up for a while.
While the morels are cooking….
…grate some cheese (I used Parmigiano but I bet several other choices would be tasty too).
Before the pasta is done….
add some white wine to the morels, garlic and sage. I also added a cup of milk. Heavy cream would have been way richer but I try to stay away from it. Stir it all up and let it simmer.
When the pasta is cooked, strain it then add it right into the morel/sauce mixture and toss it around. Let it all cook together in the cast iron pan for a couple minutes.
Shut off the burner, then toss in the cheese, a sprinkle of salt, some fresh ground pepper and if you like a few chile flakes. Add some fresh parsely. Toss it all together, and enjoy.
As we were busy making paska today, friends in Mississauga texted to say they were making it too….and the paska wars were on. Long Branch vs Mississauga. Tuffy P drove our entry west out of Long Branch to the exchange, a parking lot at Southdown Rd and Lakeshore.
…..and then Mississauga throws us a curve ball by including a container of super-delicious ravioli….paska + pasta!
The judges have deliberated and declare it……a tie!